What Can a School of Fish Teach Us About Social Influencers?

Being coercive can diminish social influence, a new cichlid fish study reports.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

Source: turgaygundogdu/Shutterstock

Like many other vertebrates, humans are social creatures. In the age of social media, many of us belong to digital social networks that are dominated by famous YouTubers, Instagram superstars, and TikTok sensations who are collectively known as "influencers."

But all too often, social media celebrities fall from grace when they display unsavory behavioral traits associated with social dominance. For example, a July 16, 2020 article in New York magazine by Zoe Haylock, "The Complete Timeline of the Many Attempts to 'Cancel' Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star," recaps the roller-coaster ride of these two influencers and how they've rubbed many YouTube followers the wrong way.

After reading that introductory paragraph, you may be asking: "What do Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star have to do with schools of cichlid fish?" Let me explain how these seemingly unrelated factions may share some similar characteristics:

When it comes to identifying how certain behavioral traits can influence social dynamics, researchers often glean fresh clues about human nature by studying other vertebrate social systems in the animal kingdom. For example, a new study of social cichlid fish (Astatotilapia burtoni) led by Mariana Rodriguez-Santiago of the University of Texas at Austin and Alex Jordan of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz in Germany suggests that aggressive and coercive individuals within a group tend to lose social influence if they display too much social dominance. Jordan is the principal investigator at MPIAB's integrative behavioral ecology lab a.k.a. "The Jordan Lab."

The latest Jordan Lab findings (Rodriguez-Santiago et al., 2020) were published on July 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the authors, this study sheds light on how domineering individuals within an organization can obstruct effective communication. As the authors explain:

"The attributes allowing individuals to attain positions of social power and dominance are common across many vertebrate social systems: aggression, intimidation, and coercion. These traits may be associated with influence, but may also be socially aversive, and thereby decrease social influence of dominant individuals."

"The same traits that make you powerful in one context can actively reduce your influence in others, especially contexts in which individuals are free to choose who to follow," senior author Jordan said in a news release. "Dominant individuals can force their will on the group by being pushy, but that also makes them socially aversive."

Notably, in the social system of cichlid fish, the least aggressive individuals in the group can often end up wielding the greatest influence. "Our results illustrate that although domineering individuals most often ascend to positions of power, they can, in fact, create the least effective influence structures at the same time," Jordan said.

For this investigation of how behavioral traits such as social dominance affect social influence, the researchers studied different groups of cichlid fish, which were all part of the same social network and living in the same fish tank. "This species forms groups with strict social hierarchies, in which dominant males control resources, territory, and space," first author Rodriguez-Santiago said in the news release.

Among cichlid fish, dominant males tend to have bright yellow, blue, and red pigmentation on their bodies; the more subordinate males tend to have less vivid coloring. Because the dominant and more subordinate fish are easy to spot by their coloring, the researchers observed how behavioral traits of social dominance and social influence played out during routine social behavior and during a more complex social learning task that required consensus.

As Rodriguez-Santiago explains, the researchers wanted to know "[Are] the colorful dominant males, which are aggressive, central in their social networks, and control resources, most influential? Or if drab subordinate males wield the greatest influence, despite being passive, non-territorial, and having little or no control over resources."

Interestingly, the researchers found that during routine social interactions, the dominant males consistently exerted the greatest influence by "chasing and pushing the group around." However, during complex social tasks, where other fish in the tank could choose which individual to follow, the seemingly "subordinate males" ended up having greater influence within their social group. In general, it appeared that each school of fish learned to avoid the domineering individuals and were more willing to follow the less aggressive members of their social network.

The researchers also used machine-learning-based animal tracking, which allowed them to follow how social dominance affects social influence in different contexts. Although dominant males frequently interacted with other fish, the computer analysis showed they were avoided by others and tended to occupy peripheral locations in the fish tank away from the group.

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that the group dynamics among cichlid fish living in a laboratory tank directly mirror how social dominance and social influence actually play out in the real-world among diverse human beings. That said, this research offers some insights into the evolutionary psychology within animal societies that are eye-opening when it comes to how different leadership styles may backfire or succeed.

"In many societies, whether animal or human, individuals in positions of power all possess a similar suite of traits, which are aggression, intimidation, and coercion. But effective communication requires the presence of a diversity of voices, not just the loudest," Jordan concluded. "Our results from a natural system show that allowing alternative pathways to positions of power may be useful in creating stronger advisory, governmental, and educational structures."


Mariana Rodriguez-Santiago, Paul Nührenberg, James Derry, Oliver Deussen, Fritz A. Francisco, Linda K. Garrison, Sylvia F. Garza, Hans A. Hofmann, Alex Jordan. "Behavioral Traits That Define Social Dominance Are the Same That Reduce Social Influence in a Consensus Task." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (First published: July 16, 2020) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2000158117